By Aislinn Keely
Melanie Sheehan, FCRH ’17, has 1500 photos in the camera roll of her phone. Instead of the customary snapshots of friends and family, the majority of Sheehan’s camera roll holds photos of President John F. Kennedy’s documents from her research grant-funded trip to the Kennedy Library. Her thesis, “Ideological Warfare: Kennedy, Nixon, and Divergent Strategies for Combatting Communism, 1946-1947” explores the differences between President Kennedy and President Richard Nixon in understanding and responding to communism.
Her research focuses on Nixon and Kennedy’s different attitudes towards labor, particularly their individual views on the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted the power of labor unions, and their views on labor unions in general. Kennedy protected labor unions as a means to raise living standards and stave off working class interest in communism, whereas Nixon viewed unions as a hotbed for radicalism, according to Sheehan.
“Part of that is where they come from,” said Sheehan on the difference in ideology. “I think it’s the way they understand why people become communist.”
Sheehan referenced the time Kennedy spent abroad in the 1930s coupled with his work as a reporter for the Hearst newspaper as shaping his views on communism.
“One of the big events that he covered was the election in Great Britain in 1945 where Churchill loses to the Clement Altee of the left-leaning Labour Party,” said Sheehan. She also cited issues at home that shaped Kennedy’s policy. “Especially in terms of the domestic issues, his constituents are working class Boston, so that certainly affects the way he thinks about labor,” said Sheehan.
Sheehan said she contrasts Kennedy and Nixon’s backgrounds as shaping the way they thought about communism.
“Nixon is the son of small business owners, whereas Kennedy comes from an elite background,” said Sheehan.
She also said she compares Nixon’s experience with labor unions to Kennedy’s Boston constituents.
“His district is very different than Boston. The labor unions that exist on the west coast are generally more radical than the ones in Boston,” she said.
When Sheehan began doing her first historical thesis for her American Studies major, she assumed extensive book reading would be the extent of her research. A professor’s suggestion that she get a grant and go to an archive to handle primary documents carried over to her current project on Nixon and Kennedy.
“I didn’t know that it was even possible until I was working on my American Studies thesis,” she said.
She applied for an undergraduate research grant when she began working on “Ideological Warfare.” With that funding, she took a trip to the Kennedy Library in Boston where she consulted Kennedy’s primary documents in addition to paying someone in California to make copies of Nixon’s documents. She has also consulted over 40 secondary sources, reading books on the two presidents as well as labor and foreign affairs.
Sheehan said she concieved “Ideological Warfare” as her honors thesis for the Rose Hill Honors Program after taking a course in 20th Century U.S. Foreign Relations with Professor Christopher Dietrich, Ph.D. She became interested in the intricacies of labor and foreign relations, particularly with the Soviet Union, in post World War II America. This was a volatile time for labor according to Sheehan.
“1946 sees the biggest strike wave in American history,” she said.
Dietrich advises Sheehan’s project, and said he is impressed with her findings.
“She’s doing original research on a topic that has largely been forgotten,” he said.
Sheehan uncovered that Nixon and Kennedy served on the same committee and debated communism in regards to unions, according to Dietrich. He said she has also gone far beyond the usual scope of this type of historical work.
“It seems to me that she’s read every one of Nixon and Kennedy’s campaign speeches, she’s read through the congressional record, she’s done research in the Kennedy Presidential Library and the Nixon Presidential Library, and she’s read the historical literature, the secondary literature surrounding the topic and is as much of an expert on it as most professional historians,” said Dietrich.
Sheehan said she came up with the topic last spring for her honors thesis, but after her acceptance into a doctoral program for history at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she plans to continue developing her work after graduating from Fordham this spring.
April 14: This article was corrected to show that Churchill lost to the Clement Altee of the left-leaning Labour Party, rather than the Socialist Party.